Q&A: It’s all gone pear-shaped

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we pare back the pair vs pare confusion…

Q: Hey, you know the story of Noah’s Ark?
A: Yes, of course.
Q: And how many more animals wanted to get on board, but Noah could only pick two?
A: Um. Okay.
Q: So once he’d paired them back, along came the flood and he just had to hope he had a male and female of each animal.
A: Going to stop you right there.
Q: It’s okay, I’m not going to go into the details of how they checked the genders.
A: No, we mean that we should stop you because you’ve said “paired them back”. This isn’t correct.
Q: Of course it is – cut it down to be just pairs remaining!
A: Sure, that may work in this story of animals going in two-by-two, hurrah… But it’s actually “to pare something back”.
Q: Ah. Oops. Why?
A: Well, it’s just purely on definition. “Pare” means to trim or cut away the outer edges. It’s where we get paring knives from.
Q: I get my paring knives from IKEA.
A: Anyway, as you hopefully realise now, you can “pare back” a number of things in many contexts. For example, “We had too many entrants, so we’re going to pare back the numbers with a qualifying phase.”
Q: Do you need the “back” part, or can you just say “we’re going to pare the numbers”?
A: In that example, “pare back” seems to be the accepted form. However, “pare” is used solo, as well as saying “pare down” or “pare off” – often when describing food.
Q: There sure are a lot of similar sounding “pair” words out there…
A: Fair point. Depending on your accent, you have “pair” and “pare” as well as “pear”, “peer” and even “pier”!
Q: They don’t all sound the same.
A: No, not identical. Although, the flatter vowel sounds of a New Zealand accent will make them all very similar.
Q: Must be quite a lot of “pare pressure” to choose the correct one.
A: You’re hilarious.
Q: So with that knife from earlier, you could pare down a pair of pears for your peers on a pier?
A: Again, hilarious. Yes, you certainly could.
Q: I think it’s time to disappear.
A: It would appear so.

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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